Scarlet Letter: Discussion Questions
As you read the novel,
respond to 6 of the following prompts or questions. You should write a meaty
analytical paragraph for each response. Choose questions that are spaced out
throughout the book—try to pace yourself by doing one question per night (there
are 8 total reading assignments).
This assignment will be
worth 2 homework grades and 2 participation grades, and will be graded on the
quality and thoughtfulness of your answers. Responses should be typed. Discussion
questions are due on Wednesday, September 23.
Chapter 3: The
In what ways is patriarchal, masculine, and
religious power established in this chapter? What clues does Hawthorne give us about this
Chapter 4: The Interview
What positive use does Chillingworth’s
medicine have in this scene? What does this act imply about his character? His
relation to Pearl?
Why does Chillingworth
pass over Hester’s sin and focus his revenge on her lover? Is his attitude
logical? In what way is he a guilty party to Hester’s sin?
Chapter 5: Hester at Her
What might be the symbolic meanings of Hester’s new
lifestyle? (Consider both where she lives and her occupation.)
Chapter 6: Pearl
What is the symbolic meaning of Pearl’s name?
What does Hawthorne signify about Pearl’s character through
her relation to nature?
Chapter 7: The
What do you think Hester means to say to the town
fathers through Pearl’s dress? Is she conscious of the message she is sending?
Pearl makes Hester look at the distortion of the
scarlet letter in the suit of mail. Why is the armor (the symbol of masculine
knighthood and warfare) an appropriate surface to reflect and enlarge the
scarlet letter and to distort Hester’s face?
Chapter 8: The Elf-Child
and the Minister
What connection is there between Pearl’s assertion that she
has no heavenly father and her claim that she was “plucked by her mother off
the bush of wild roses” by the prison door? What do her words signify about the
relationship of the female processes of nature and the patriarchal order of the
Puritan church and society? To which does Pearl belong?
What is suggested by the fact that Mistress Hibbins, the representative of the Black Man, resides in
the governor’s house? Why is this important?
Chapter 9: The Leech
What skills does Chillingworth
the physician offer to Dimmesdale? Why is this
helping relationship ironic?
Chapter 10: The Leech
and His Patient
12. Why does Chillingworth probe into Dimmesdale’s problems and urge him to share his pain? What
is evil about Chillingworth’s seemingly concerned
effort to relieve Dimmesdale’s pain?
13. What are Hester and Pearl doing in this chapter? What is suggested by the place where they are? By
the objects Pearl plays with?
Chapter 11: The
Interior of a Heart
your opinion, what are the most important revelations made about Dimmesdale in this chapter? Why?
Chapter 12: The
is important about the light that appears in the sky and the various ways
in which it is interpreted?
is the significance of Chillingworth’s
appearance in this scene?
Chapter 13: Another
View of Hester
what has been happening to Hester since Pearl’s
birth with what has been happening to Dimmesdale—socially,
physically, intellectually, spiritually.
are the signs of Hester’s intellectual growth? Of her spiritual confusion?
Notice her questions about theological doctrines and the position of women
in a patriarchal society.
Chapter 14: Hester
and the Physician
is Pearl doing in this chapter? What is its
symbolic meaning in contrast to what Hester is doing?
does Chillingworth mean when he says, “Let the
black flower blossom as it may!”? What is the symbolic meaning of this
flower in connection with other examples of flower imagery in the novel?
Chapter 15: Hester
is revealed about Hester’s feelings toward Chillingworth?
Is she justified in her attitudes toward him? In what ways is he guilty of
effect is created by Hawthorne’s
contrast between the horrors of Chillingworth
and the pleasures of Pearl’s
is the symbolic meaning of Pearl’s
“green A”? What meanings of the A are revealed in this chapter through the
conversation of Pearl and
Hester. What does Pearl
understand? Does Hester project her own understandings on to Pearl?
Chapter 16: A Forest Walk
Pearl’s play with the sunshine
and Hester’s attitude toward Pearl,
herself, and the sunlight. What does the sunshine symbolize? Compare the
meaning suggested by the sunshine here to Hawthorne’s use of sunlight in
“The Market Place” when Hester stands on the scaffold. What is the meaning
of these differences in the use of sunshine?
are the differences in the attitudes toward the Black Man shown by Pearl
and by Hester? Why does Pearl have
no fear of the darkness the forest represents? Why did the Puritans fear
Chapter 17: The
Pastor and his Parishioner
title of this chapter establishes a hierarchy of roles in which Dimmesdale is the authority figure and comforter and Hester
is the one to be led and comforted. Are these roles fulfilled in the
chapter or are they reversed? What is the significance of Hawthorne’s
reminder of these churchly roles in his chapter title?
is Hester’s assertion that he will not be alone a radical position for
Hester to take, considering the society in which they live? What does her
suggestion reveal about her understanding of her relationship to Dimmesdale?
Chapter 18: A Flood
has Hester learned from wearing the scarlet letter? What is the source of
her strength and confidence in this interview with Dimmesdale?
- How does
nature signify its blessings on them? Does Hawthorne
use this symbol of nature to affirm their decision? Is there any ambiguity
in this positive presentation of the result of their new declaration of
their devotion to each other?
Chapter 19: The Child
at the Brook-side
is Pearl a “living
hieroglyphic”? Describe her appearance. Why does Hawthorne
emphasize the natural setting in this presentation of Pearl’s
difficulties does Hester have in persuading Pearl
to respond to the minister? Is Pearl’s
behavior normal? Is it symbolic? If so, what is its meaning? What
psychological need dominates Hester’s behavior in this chapter?
the details of Hawthorne’s
descriptions and comments on the brook. What does the brook symbolize?
Chapter 20: The
Minister in a Maze
the minister’s maze to Hester’s own labyrinth of doubts in “Another View
of Hester.” Are their problems the same? Why is Dimmesdale
in a maze, considering the decisions that have just been made?
Chapter 21: The New England Holiday
Pearl’s appearance and her
“bird-like” movement. What does Hawthorne’s
use of bird imagery in describing Pearl
signify? What is her attitude toward the jailer? Toward sailors and
Indians in the town?
Hawthorne’s descriptions of
the sailors and the Indians. What qualities of human nature are
represented by these strangers? How are they different from the
is the symbolic meaning of the sea? (Recall the location of Hester’s house
and Pearl’s play with water in
Chapter 22: The
the procession. In what way is Hester’s identity represented among the
town’s men of status?
does Hester feel when she looks at Dimmesdale?
In what ways is she cut off from him in this scene?
the way Hawthorne
recapitulates the positions of Hester and Dimmesdale
in the first scaffold scene through the last paragraph of this chapter.
What has changed?
Chapter 23: The
Revelation of the Scarlet Letter
this third and last scaffold scene, notice the ways in which Dimmesdale turns to Hester for strength. How does this
last confession meet his needs? Is it a solution that helps Hester?
symbolic role does the sun play in this confession scene?
change is brought about in Pearl
by Dimmesdale’s confession? How does he give Pearl
an identity that she has previously lacked? Is this new identity
- As Dimmesdale dies, Hester’s chief concern is being with
him in heaven. What is his chief concern? Is Hester a frail woman who puts
human love before religious devotion and penitence? Is Dimmesdale
a misguided religious devotee who values his status in heaven more than he
values human love and devotion?
does Hawthorne begin the
chapter by suggesting that the meaning of Dimmesdale’s
action in his confession is ambiguous? Why do some townspeople deny his
does Hawthorne develop the
theme of the evil of hidden sin and the moral value of honesty with the
world and with the self? Is his method effective?
is the significance of what happens to both Pearl
and to Hester at the end of the novel?
the last paragraph of the novel. Are Hester and Dimmesdale
united? What is the symbolic meaning of the colors and the heraldic device
that mark their graves?